As we mentioned earlier, a great team starts to develop when everyone who is part of the team is operating at their best and doing their jobs well. There are three parts to our swim team: coaches, swimmers and parents. No group can do a good job if they don’t know what their job is! We need a clear job description for each group. This will also help us create the boundaries people shouldn’t cross which will help us avoid conflict and bad team culture.
As coach, you have to be part CEO, part parent, part cheerleader, part entrepreneur, part scientist, part public speaker and 100% mentor. Let’s try to go through these concepts step by step and give some concrete examples for you to base your ideas on.
Obviously, we think developing a “team” culture is the best way to go. The best way to do this is to have a shared long-term plan. We are going to put this plan into writing using a vision statement, a mission statement and team goals. We know… sounds very “cooperate” and lame. But these aren’t for your shareholders, they are for you!
A vision statement is your “why.” This tells you, your assistant coaches, your parents, your swimmers and your community why you exist and what your vision of the future is. It gives everyone involved a purpose and meaning. This is what we are all working towards. This is also NOT attainable. The vision is never fulfilled. Instead, it is a never-ending quest for improvement. Here are a few examples of vision statements:
A mission statement on the other hand is your “how.” How are you going to go about achieving your vision? This helps guide the team with their daily decisions and whether they are working towards accomplishing the vision. If a vision statement is the destination, the mission statement is the journey. You need both to reach the end. Here are some examples of mission statements:
A team goal is your short-term step by step “result.” While a vision and mission statement won’t change over years, a team goal should be set and changed every season. It should also be something everyone can contribute to. If you make it based on how fast a person swims, not everyone will be able to contribute and it won’t be a “team” goal anymore. When we talk about the swimmer’s job, we will go over individual goals, which is where we will introduce swimmer specific goals. If the vision statement is the destination and the mission statement is the journey, then the team goals are the steps you take along the way. Here are some examples of team goals:
Setting a vision, mission and team goal is the easy part. Holding on to it is hard, especially in the setting of great success. Most anyone can focus on a non-swimming related goal when they have a “slow” team. No championships on the line to lose, no Olympic trials to perform well at, no Division I team to sell your “product” to and prove how great a coach you are. But when those things start to happen, it’s easy to forget purpose and instead focus on the results. It’s easy to let ego get in the way of the process. We start to focus on what we can lose instead of what we’re really there for: making badass kids who want to conquer the world by conquering themselves!
On a daily basis, you as a coach really only have two jobs:
We all need someone to push us out of our comfort zones. We can almost never do it ourselves; we need someone else to hold us to a higher level of excellence. Your job as coach is to set that target outside everyone’s comfort zone. That’s how we create growth and character. That’s why we need coaches and mentors. A swimmer’s first mentor in their life could be you. Make sure you do a good job!
These higher expectations apply to every part of the team: coaches, swimmers and parents. Most of this will come in the form of education. Educating your team on their jobs and how to do them right will build everyone’s trust in you. The funny thing is, you don’t even have to be obviously right in what you say, but just showing that you care and are there to serve the team builds everyone’s trust in your leadership skills and role.
Tangent: You may be wondering why you just got stuck with the mentoring job, shouldn’t the kid’s parents be their mentors? In all likelihood, between practices and meets, you are the adult the kids spend the most time with, therefore the job is yours 😉
Right now, we are going to hold a 10,000-foot view, but in Part 2, we will talk in more detail how you can go about educating your swimmers and parents.
For now, the most important person to educate is yourself and your coaching staff. There is no semester test, no grade, no evaluation. This is all on you and that’s what makes it so difficult. You have to commit to teaching yourself about exercise science, business and leadership skills. And whatever you learn, you have to share that with your team. Setting aside scheduled time to meet, talk and email about what you are learning will hold you accountable. Better yet, having a mentor that pushes YOU beyond your comfort zone is even better… wait a second, you need a COACH! Find one, learn from them, have them teach you and set you straight you when you need it.
In addition, find some great coaching resources and follow them. These are the people who have made it their life’s goal to improve and inspire other coaches. Remember, you will be the average of who you spend time with. Spend time with great coaches, and you will start to turn into one yourself. And don’t be afraid to take ideas from outside the pool. The habits of excellence and success are the same everywhere you look, you just have to find them.
These are some of the more impactful books we have read over the past few years that we suggest you and some of your athletes read. It is not uncommon for us to blast out emails of good reading material or snippets to our swimming families. While most athletes will not read anything, many of our top performers will read extra material to help themselves. If you can get a few to pick up new habits and train those skills and adopt those mindsets, it will trickle into the minds of others:
Another avenue you might go to help your athletes is to share inspirational video’s. As you might read in some of those books visual cues are a big deal. Make sure you are taking the time to search and find new material to reach all of your kids. This past year we started taking 15 to 20 minutes of every week during our dryland to show videos or speak about material we had read through to help better our athletes mentally to take on the physical tasks before them. John Wooden and Anson Dorrance have a lot of video content that is fantastic out there.
Over time your swimmers, coaches and parents will start to trust you through your character and your competence. The faster you gain their trust, the more successful your team will be and the faster it can make big decisions. We have seen coaches fought against, pushed back on and even fired because the team they served did not have trust in them. It’s entirely possible these coaches didn’t deserve the team’s trust, but the fact remains: if you are constantly fighting your team to get “your way,” you need to realize it’s because they don’t trust you.
Tangent: “The first job of a leader—at work or at home—is to inspire trust. It’s to bring out the best in people by entrusting them with meaningful stewardships, and to create an environment in which high-trust interaction inspires creativity and possibility.”
― Stephen M.R. Covey
You will never be able to change the team’s culture overnight. It’s an ongoing process that starts slowly, but accelerates with time. Don’t change things too fast. Earn trust first, then make changes. Start with your board, your assistant coaches, then with your swimmers.
Swimmers in a way have it easy. They don’t have to come up with abstract visions of the future and continually worry about the affairs of the club. They have to show up, work hard and make sure the person next to them does the same. That alone will take care of 90% of their responsibilities. But we don’t want to be 90% of a good swimmer, we want that 100%!
If you see yourself as part of a team, you want to identify with that team’s values and beliefs. We do it all the time in real life; it’s called brand loyalty. When you wear a Nike shirt or drive a Tesla, you are (at some level) saying you identify with what those companies believe. You “Just do it” for instance.
Being part of a team is similar, and everyone should clearly see this part of you. Wearing a team cap to practice is like wearing a uniform. If all the players on a football team wore different colored shirts and logos, you won’t think they are part of the same team, right? Ideally, the club would provide the caps, but it’s not going to be feasible all the time. Wearing a team suit (at least a racing suit) would be even better, but we make compromises since it may be financially challenging or may be challenging for everyone to agree on "fashion". And that’s ok. Know which battles to pick. A good way to compromise on different fits is to go with a solid team color that can be bridged into different suit brands.
Another concrete way to show you are all on the same team and are showing up to help each other out is to start warm-up and training sets together. Nothing bugs a person (swimmer or coach) more than someone working hard while others are on deck dragging their feet. If you’re going to be there, be there 100%.
For those swimmers who can drive, that means showing up early and being ready well before practice starts. This shows you actually WANT to be there. You want to be part of the team. Coming barely on time and slowly getting in reflects you don’t really want to be there. Your body language says it all. This wouldn’t be acceptable behavior at work, and it won’t (shouldn’t) be accepted at practice. Now, getting the parents to drop off the kiddos early for the same reason is another challenge, but also worth the effort to encourage.
Tangent: If you’re on time, you’re late.
In addition, teams are made up of FRIENDS, especially for the younger kids. They don’t come to practice to be fast swimmers, they come because that’s where their friends are. They don’t always have the opportunity to make friends while they are training, so we have to create that chance for them on deck before and after practice. During practice, you can also use team-based games to build comradery. If kids make or have friends on the swim team every day, that’s where they will want to go… every day.
At meets, you have to act like a swim team too. Sit together, cheer together, warmup together, win AND lose together. On our team, we set up tents and bleachers for the coaches and swimmers to hang out separately from the parents. The separation again forces kids to “detach” from parents and be a part of a team. The added hours together also help build those friendships that kids want more of on a daily basis during the season. If kids just sit with their parents for a four-hour swim session, what’s the point of being on a swim team!? Save the money and train on your own and race on your own.
When other swimmers, coaches and parents see one of your swimmers race, act and cheer, they should know which team that person belongs to. It should be obvious. They should want to be part of your team!
Another part of the swimmer’s job is to set goals. These should be made with your coach, but there should also be a thought-out plan on what a goal is and how to set them.
A goal is just something you want to achieve (duh), but not all goals are created equal. A dream goal is something you hope for but realistically is out of your wheelhouse, like win a gold medal at the Olympics. While it’s ok to have a dream, it’s not ok to see yourself as a failure when it doesn’t happen. That’s just silly and immature.
Tangent: Dreams are totally ok, as long as you know they are based on hope alone.
A results goal is something you want to achieve long term or every season. Results goals can be purely time based (break a minute in the 100) or achievement based (earn a DI scholarship). These types of goals are starting to lose favor because often times they become the sole purpose behind what we do. As we spoke extensively before, your purpose should be grander than making the clock read a specific number. But that doesn’t mean results goals don’t have their place. These goals should be MOTIVATION during the daily grind. Whether you reach them or not is actually not that important. What is more important is whether they help you struggle just a bit longer during a set, push you harder during a race or wake you up a little earlier to stretch and take care of nutrition before morning practice…
Process goals are by far the most important. These are the short-term goals we create as stepping stones to reach our results goal (or maximize our potential in general). A process goal is not a time we want to achieve, it should be a training achievement. Once achieved, a new process goal should be set. You can have multiple process goals running at the same time for different strokes, training sets or even just kicking. Here are a few Process goal examples:
Why are process goals so important in swimming? Because we can’t see our progress as well as other sports can. Take weightlifting for example. If you have 100lbs on the bar and bench-press it, you can bench 100lbs. If you want to bench 110lbs, you put that weight on the bar and it’s real. It’s something you can touch and feel and be scared by. But when you successfully bench it… that’s it. Forever and ever you can bench that much weight. In weightlifting, this happens every day with 100s of different lifting variations at different reps…etc. We don’t get the same experience in swimming. We can’t see our progress as clearly as a weightlifter, but we can use process goals to act as a surrogate. This will build “mastery,” a concept we will talk about more later.
After you have put in all this hard work and planning, the hard part comes and you just have to wait. At first, it’s easy to work hard and push yourself because every time you jumped on the blocks, you go a best time. That won’t last forever. Before you know it, weeks, months, seasons and years go by between best times. But those moments still come around, they are called “window shots.” The window stays closed most of the time, but the most successful swimmers are the ones that are ready at all times to jump through the window when it opens. You have to maintain a high level of performance, work ethic and grit regardless of your swimming speed in the moment. You have to believe the window will open, you have to be ready for it when it does, and you have to be patient and wait for it.
One thing that is NOT your job as a swimmer is to be “better” than someone else. Constantly worrying about being faster than your nemesis is small picture thinking. If you look far and wide enough, there is almost always someone out there that is faster than both you and your nemesis. What that means is that you are not training, racing or being part of the team to make yourself better, you are doing it for your own ego. This has limited short term benefits and ultimately backfires. You either find someone you can’t beat or you attain your goals of victory. If that’s all you swim for, both will lead to a loss of motivation to keep pushing yourself. We want something that keeps pushing us forward.
Tangent: This concept of continually improving yourself was first proposed by psychologist Dr. Maslow and his now famous Maslow Pyramid. At the top were people he called “Self-Actualized” who had a distinct feature of always chasing improvement.
A coach is a good start, but a worthy rival is even better. Instead of looking at your opponents as swimmers who want to take you down, see them as competitors who push you to be your best. They help you become a better swimmer. In a very real way, your rivals are helping you achieve more of yourself. That isn’t something an enemy or nemesis does, it’s something we expect out of our teammates and coaches. So, ditch the attitude and ego when racing a rival and see them for what they are: another assistant in your journey to achieve more.
The last job you have as a swimmer is to take responsibility… for everything! After all, you are in the water, you are on the block, you are the reason the swim team exists. It’s easy to blame your teammates, coaches and parents for a bad race or bad season but every successful swimmer and person takes personal responsibility for everything that happens to them. Coaches come and go; teams rise and fall and parents can’t take care of you forever. So, at the end of the day, if you want to make yourself and your team better, it’s up to you.
Tangent: “Newton's third law – the only way humans have ever figured out of getting somewhere is to leave something behind.” TARS, Interstellar
While we coaches may think that we serve our swimmers, in reality the parents are the paying customers. From a financial point of view, our swim team business model runs on serving parents and providing them with the product they want to buy. The product parents want to buy can vary from parent to parent: fast swimmer who earns a scholarship, babysitting time for their kid, friends, life skills like discipline, confidence, gratitude, work ethic… The only time parents get upset is when their dollars aren’t buying the product they want. This is why it’s so important to both be clear about what you are selling and to help your customers understand what they really should be buying. You have to be a little bit of a car salesman. Your customers know they want a car (to be part of the swim team), but they don’t know exactly what kind (a badass kid who happens to swim fast).
But it’s not just the money they put in that matters, it’s time (which, in a way is free labor because we can’t afford to pay the actual cost). I’ve met parents who didn’t want to put their kids into swimming because it would consume too much of their time (and money). That’s totally fair because once a parent puts their kid on your team, they become part of the team too. The best teams run on great parent volunteers who want their kids to have a great time and lots of swimming opportunities. Let’s talk about how you can build up these great parents just as you build up great swimmers.
If all you do as a parent is get your swimmer to practice early, that is half the battle! We will admit (and many coaches will agree) that it is one of our biggest pet peeves when kids roll into practice late. And by late, we mean right on time. If practice starts at 6:00, that means swimmers hit the water at 6:00. That means swimmers need to be at the pool at 5:45. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, even if you don’t care about the rest of the team culture and making friends, swimmers need some time to get ready for practice: stretching, filling up water bottles, getting equipment ready… etc. Secondly, the few moments before practice begins is where kids make their friends. If you want your swimmer to ask to go to practice instead of you forcing them to go, they need to make friends who hang out at the pool. Lastly, it teaches a valuable life lesson. If you show up to work late or show up on time but start working after the clock is ticking, the boss notices and regards it as laziness. Some will consider it outright theft! When on company time, you should do company work. It’s just the right thing to do. Swim practice is the same and should be treated the same. Show up ahead of schedule and be ready to hit the water 100% when the clock starts ticking.
The most difficult job you have as a parent on a swim team is to hold yourself back. It is instinct to want to help your kid be successful and to hold their hand and give advice. DON’T! Your kids are not married, they don’t have careers, they aren’t trying to graduate medical school… they are on a swim team. What is the worst that could happen? They swim slow, big deal. But when you interfere and take over, you actually take away the most important lesson every swimmer (and young person) should learn the hard way: dealing with failure.
We (coaches) want your kids to fail in swimming so they don’t fail in something more important. We want to help them overcome those failures and learn that on the path to success there will be ups and downs. If you jump in and take away the downs, there can be no ups (at least none that the swimmer gained themselves). The most successful people in history failed and failed often, but it wasn’t their failure that made them great, it was how they learned from their mistakes and did it right the second time around. If you save your kid from failure in swimming, they will experience it later when the stakes are higher and the cost will be higher too.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive; it just means you shouldn’t fix your kid’s problems for them. Let’s take a real-life example and play it out. Your swimmer trains all season and doesn’t go a best time at the end of the season. A common scenario. A parent concerned about their kid’s swimming future in college, concerned about whether their kid will continue swimming at all or just out right concerned about their own ego will try to jump in and “fix” the problem. Switching clubs, complaining to coaches or giving technical and workout advice are all examples of this behavior. All of these actions take the pressure off the swimmer and blame someone else for the current situation. This pattern of “entitlement” rubs off on the kids and will pervade their lives. Remember that the universe (and the pool) owes you nothing and this behavior implies to the kids that it does.
The extreme opposite reaction and saying everything is ok is also not very helpful. That does not change the current reality and does nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again. So, what’s the best response? We mentioned it earlier in the form of two questions:
We want these failures to be teaching moments and what we want to teach is how to focus on real ways of improving rather than on sulking on what went wrong. Helping your kids answer these questions themselves is the best way to be supportive without interfering or overtaking their experience. Bottom line: the kids need to own their swimming. In the rest of their lives they are told where to go, what to eat, when to sleep. In swimming, they have the first opportunity of freely taking charge of their destiny. They will inevitably hit bumps in the road. They must learn to drive over them without stopping!
Tangent: Freud considered delaying the gratification of ill-timed or inappropriate impulses (“to put up with a little unpleasure”) as the central developmental challenge of childhood.
When it comes to giving technical advice, research shows that athletes do not appreciate or want it from their parents, especially if those parents have no background in their sport. Beyond what we have already talked about, a parent giving technical advice can actually hinder the long-term plan of the coach. We often make kids race with a goal: certain stroke count, dolphin kicks off each wall, technique focuses… We personally have had kids race drills in swim meets and break rules like the kickout limit in order to force the swimmer to adapt their habits and take on a better way of swimming. Any time you change what a swimmer is doing, they will be slower in the moment. But our goal is not to swim fast today; it is to swim faster tomorrow. Taking one step back to take three forwards is our goal as coaches. If you (the parent) interfere with this process and give technical advice that is contrary to ours, this disrupts the grand plan and ends up holding your swimmer back in the long term.
So, what should you do when your swimmer gets done with a race and comes straight to you? Tell them “great job, I love watching you swim,” then send them back to their team! If they ask for technique advice, send them to their coach for it, don’t tell them anything yourself. On our team, it is the rule that each swimmer must talk with their coach before and after every race. Before cooling down, before getting a snack, before checking in with their parent they must talk to their coach about what went well and what can be improved in their race. Swim meets are a special place where a swimmer’s focus is heightened, so it becomes easier to make them adapt to changes. We will talk more about how to coach at swim meets later, but this is our advice and reasons for the parents.
Don’t ever make swimming about beating a certain swimmer or time. You can consistently improve something in your own swimming and character, but you can’t consistently beat a time or person. When they eventually lose to a person or don’t get the time they want, this only builds resentment, failure and quitting.
Maybe one of the most time consuming parts of being a swim parent is helping with swim meets. Imagine if you had to pay for all the labor that goes into running a swim meet: officials, volunteers, set up/tear down… would the team make any money at all? Probably not.
Swim meets can be one of the team’s best sources of income to pay for coaches, pool rent and equipment. In order to run properly, swim meets need good volunteers (parents) in order to provide those opportunities for swimmers to compete and to keep the monthly dues lower for everyone. We will dive into more detail later on how to run great meets, but these are the reasons we need parents to up their game and be part of our swim team.
One of the tougher volunteering spots that needs filling is officiating. Having good officials and meet managers takes A LOT of effort, but the dividends pay out in the long run. Being able to run an efficient meet and double participation can double the club’s revenue. This helps keep the monthly costs of being on the swim team low, allowing more families to be a part of the team. The extra money can be used for scholarship opportunities to include more low-income families. It pays for training equipment and for the coaches to attend clinics, improving training and performance… and on and on and on. More money helps the entire team, and running a great meet makes more money. Parents in this way become an essential part of our swim team.
Tangent: Also, the best view of your kid will be from the pool deck and only officials get that close!
Before we move on to Part 2, one last message for coaches reading this book. Parents want what’s best for their kids. This never changes and helps explain their behavior. They will fight for this purpose and if they think you are in the way, they will fight you too. It is your job as a coach to educate them and be clear and transparent so that conflict can be avoided. Just don’t take it personally when a parent does something contrary to your desires, they just want what’s best for their kid, even if they aren’t doing it in the right way.